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Both sides agree Marcellus bill just starting point

Supporters and critics of a bill passed Wednesday to regulate Marcellus Shale horizontal drilling agreed on one thing: The legislation is only a starting point for ongoing regulation of the burgeoning new industry.

"We have not seen the last of Marcellus Shale issues, nor should we," Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said shortly before the House passed the bill (HB401) on a 92-5 vote.

Moments later, the Senate concurred on the bill, which incorporated the Senate's version of the legislation (SB4001) along with seven House amendments, on a 33-0 vote. That vote sent the bill to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who signed it to close out the four-day special legislative session.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, called the legislation a framework for the future.

"It gives us a platform to work off of, as we venture into a whole new world of economic development in West Virginia," he said.

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, co-chairman of a House-Senate select committee that had worked on the issue through the summer and fall, and a critic of the "watered-down" version of the bill submitted by Tomblin, said it is still an improvement over current law, which is designed to regulate conventional natural gas wells.

"We are going to put some things into effect immediately that need to go into effect immediately, and ultimately will benefit the people and the state," he said.

Among the improvements Manchin cited:

| Initial permit fees for wells go from $600 to $10,000, providing about $2.4 million a year to allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire 17 additional well inspectors and permit reviewers.

| The distance well sites must be set back from residences goes to 625 feet, from 200 feet, and a House amendment to the bill requires DEP to study the impact of noise, dust, and volatile organic compounds from drilling sites on nearby residences.

"Other than the 625 feet, we haven't done a lot for surface owners in this bill," Manchin conceded.

| Expanded public notice of applications for drilling permits, including requiring legal ads in local newspapers, and mandating that DEP establish a dedicated website listing all Marcellus Shale permits and applications.

"That alone might be enough to make this bill worth voting for," Manchin said.

But he's concerned that the bill leaves it up to the DEP to go through the rule-making process to develop standards for cement casings for the horizontal wells - critical to avoid blowouts that could contaminate groundwater - rather than having the requirements spelled out in the legislation.

"Our people have a fear. They have a fear we're going to pollute the underground water. They fear we're going to pollute the surface water," he said.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Tomblin called the bill a landmark piece of legislation, and said its passage marks "an exciting achievement in our state's history."

While the bill he introduced differed notably from the select committee's recommendations, Tomblin denied making it more industry-friendly, or weakening recommended environmental standards.

"You've got to have legislation you can get the votes to pass," he said, noting that only five legislators voted against the bill.

"A majority of members must have felt it did a fair job of protecting the environment," he said.

One of the more vocal critics of the governor's bill, Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, voted for the legislation Wednesday, despite saying she was disappointed it does not do more to protect the environment and surface owners' rights.

"I think the notion is preposterous that this industry doesn't need more regulation," she said. "This affects our water. This affects our land, and it affects people's property rights."

In the Senate, select committee co-chairman Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, called the legislation a good beginning for Marcellus Shale regulation.

"It is a foundation for us to start with," he said. "There's more protection for the environment, and there's more protection for the surface owners."

In the House, Delegates Troy Andes, R-Putnam; Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson; Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor: Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming; and Brian Savilla, R-Putnam, voted against the bill.

Delegates Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, and Roy Givens, D-Brooke, were absent, while Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, was excused from voting, because he is in negotiations with a drilling company to lease farmland he owns.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 


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